Going to the Archives

Primary records are the foundation of any good history. And there’s nothing quite like going directly to the source to find them. I travelled to Canberra last month to plough through files at the National Archives of Australia and, as it turned out, also at the Australian War Memorial.

The National Archives are housed in a squat white building located behind Old Parliament House. While most files are stored off-site, the building houses offices, exhibition spaces and, in the back, the Reading Room where researchers can access original documents. I had previously ordered a number of files and they were waiting there for me when I arrived.

This visit was primarily looking for general 467 and 463 Squadrons stuff, and I wasn’t disappointed. Among other things, I found an internal signal to the Squadrons, explaining what went wrong during the disastrous Mailly-le-Camp raid on 3 May 1944, and the original order detailing the special training sortie to be carried out prior to the Marignane trip of 9 March 1944. I know that the crew of B for Baker were involved in both operations so these documents add considerable detail to the story. Another file allowed me to solve the mystery of why Jack Purcell waited until the middle of February to do his first operation, despite having arrived on the squadron in early January: he spent a week and a half in the Station Sick Quarters in the latter part of January and missed the Berlin trip (28 January) on which most of the rest of his crew made their operational debuts.

Some other files that I’m interested in, with intriguing titles like “Flight Planning Conferences”, “5 Group Tactical Summaries” and “Ideas and Inventions”, are marked “not yet examined” – offering the tantalising prospect of looking at files that no-one has ever seen before at the Archives – but these were not yet ready in time for this visit. Guess I’m coming back another time.

There are a few other files listed on the NAA database under a search for “467 Squadron” that are part of a series called ‘AWM64’. As it turned out these are actually held at the Australian War Memorial Research Centre. Conveniently, after spending most of the morning shuffling and photographing old papers at the Archives, this was to be my next stop.

As part of plans for the Centenary of ANZAC commemorations, the War Memorial is undergoing significant refurbishment works at the moment. Consequently the usual entrance to the Research Centre is unavailable and you need to be escorted through ‘back of house’ to access it. That minor inconvenience aside, the staff are exceedingly helpful and the collection, of course, is world-class. I was able to examine an original navigation log and chart for an operation to Konigsberg in August 1944 (the overwhelming impression is that navigators worked like cut snakes, with fixes every six minutes), a number of logbooks (including one for a navigator who completed a tour on Lancasters, then another one on Mosquitos and after the war flew extensively for Qantas Empire Airways) and diaries and, eventually, the relevant AWM64 files. Included among these are large-size notebooks which appear to be the Orderly Room’s master list of sorties carried out by each member of aircrew. They are incomplete and contain frequent blank pages but it was interesting to see evidence that French targets only counted for a ‘third’ of a raid up until Mailly-le-Camp. The crew of B for Baker were not among the names on the pages but others who occasionally flew with Phil Smith are there. I’m not sure that the full records have survived but even so, this could be a valuable resource for deciphering some of the more badly faded pages of the Operational Record Books.

A certain amount of ‘pot-luck’ is needed when ordering records at libraries and archives – sometimes the entries in the catalogues are less than descriptive – but that’s all part of the fun. Many times the files are not entirely relevant to the task at hand but, every so often, you find something unexpected in amongst the files. It was a useful couple of days work.

© 2013 Adam Purcell